BUTTE — On a trip to Yellowstone National Park with his family four years ago, Magdaleno Barragan visited Montana for the first time and saw an opportunity to carve out a niche.
A native of Melaque, Mexico, who had been working in the restaurant business in Oregon for the past 20 years, Barragan felt he could provide something that Montana didn't have enough of: authentic Mexican food.
So Barragan relocated and launched his Montana restaurant business in Butte, simply because it was one of the towns he had visited on that trip to Yellowstone.
Three years later, Barragan's restaurants, named Melaque in honor of his hometown, are in six Montana cities: Butte, Anaconda, Bozeman, Belgrade, Great Falls and Helena.
Barragan, 40, credits his success to a hard work ethic, authentic food and good service. "The secret is just to take care of the customer," Barragan said. "Just keep them coming back."
Melaque's salsa and most of the sauces are made from scratch, and Barragan buys the tortillas and produce from a special supplier in Oregon, he said.
If Barragan didn't personally cook your meal on a visit to Melaque, the person who did learned directly from him, he said.
"I am the one who is in the kitchen the most," Barragan said.
Barragan came to the United States in 1979 looking for what he calls "the American dream." He learned most of his cooking skills when he was working in Mexican restaurants in Oregon. He got his start in the restaurant business when a friend invited Barragan to work in his restaurant. Prior to that, Barragan worked in the fields of the Willamette Valley and other agricultural areas in the west.
Looking over Melaque's menu is a lesson in Spanish 101. Most of the foods are identified by their native name. Mariscos is seafood, pollo is chicken and carne is beef or meat. All six restaurants have the same menu.
Barragan said some of Melaque's specialties include carne asada — a spicy, tangy Mexican steak dish, and pollo a la creme — chicken in a cream sauce. Barragan's day at the restaurant usually starts at 7 a.m. and lasts until midnight. Typically, Barragan will work three or four days at the restaurant and his wife will work the other days. He shares the work with his wife so he can raise his four sons.
Seven of Barragan's 11 brothers now live in Montana and help him manage the six restaurants. Barragan and family hand-make all the booths in the Melaque restaurants at their Butte home, Barragan said.
Just to be sure he could handle the harsh Montana winter, Barragan lived through one in Butte before opening his first restaurant here.
"It snows a lot here," he said, but he decided he could handle it.
The restaurants' atmosphere is also important to Barragan. The textured, white walls inside the the Butte facility are adorned with boldly colored paintings and pottery purchased in markets in Mexico.
Barragan makes trips back to his native country every six months to get the decorations and to visit his extensive family still living in Melaque. Barragan also manages apartment buildings which are a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean in Melaque, he said.
Melaque is in the state of Jalisco on the central western Mexican coast. It shares the state with the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and Mexico's second largest city, Guadalajara.